changing the things I cannot accept (# 38)

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Over the past week, I was in another city for a work conference. Between alcohol freedom and social anxiety, I was not particularly up for the numerous cocktail hours and dinners on offer, so I would poke my head in for as longer as I could stand it (between 15-45 minutes) and bail as soon I as felt awkward. Then, I would go out walking. I fell in love with this city and between running and walking, I put about 30 miles (!) on my shoes over the course of four days.

During my rambles, I saw this quote emblazoned on a wall. It hit home. Although the quote has been embraced by social activists and is generally presented in that context, I find it interesting that it uses and flips the language of the serenity prayer.

I can think of many situations where it is indeed best to accept things that can’t be changed, such as having a teenage daughter. Serenity is essential, in that case. That said, I stopped drinking because I passionately wanted to change many things I cannot accept. Choosing not to drink strikes me as the simplest, clearest way to start addressing the facts and feelings that have become unacceptable to me.

I cannot accept:

  1. Feeling trapped by my choices instead of free.
  2. Not reaching my potential or trying to reach it.
  3. Not being present in my own life, with the people I love.
  4. Living with an incessant hamster wheel of thoughts in my brain about when, where and why to drink.
  5. Looking fried, frazzled, beat down, and worn out.
  6. Neglecting the activities that give me pleasure: running, cooking, dancing tango, reading.
  7. Neglecting the activities that must get done: folding clothes, tidying up, running errands.
  8. Never finding time to write or be creative.
  9. Feeling like crap for big chunks of a day.
  10. Sometimes wondering if you can smell the fact I drank a lot of something last night.
  11. Not doing my best to live a peaceful, meaningful life.
  12. Gaining weight while eating healthily.
  13. Counting the minutes until the workday ends so I can have a glass of wine.
  14. Having someone ask me if I remember last night and not remembering.
  15. Scrambling around in the morning, faking I’m fine but actually shaking.
  16. Suggesting we have “just one more” drink while knowing it’s never just one more.
  17. Feeling like my daily habits are harming me instead of supporting me.
  18. Feeling like being anxious is my natural state.
  19. Feeling like I can’t quite figure my shit out.
  20. Feeling insecure because I know deep down that by drinking I am choosing mediocre skating through life instead of full-on pursuing my dreams.
  21. Wondering if you secretly think I am an incorrigible lush.
  22. Wondering if the grass is greener on the sober side without bothering to see for myself.
  23. Feeling like a fraud knowing that I am not as “together” as I prefer to appear.
  24. Kicking myself for sliding into yet another phase of drinking too much, a predictable pattern that has recurred at various times in my life prompting the same questions, over and over again.
  25. Believing wine or whiskey is a fix for anything.
  26. Letting the impulsive roar of intoxication drown out the insistent whisper of intuition.
  27. Feeling like the bigger, more fulfilling life I desire will forever elude me because my brain is clogged.
  28. Doing the easy, immediate thing instead of the right thing.
  29. Trading my natural energy and exuberance for a buzz.
  30. Clinging to the mythology that alcohol is a necessary part of a creative life.

This list could get a lot longer. . . .

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the girl (# 36)

I have an almost-16-year-old daughter. She smokes pot. More than I know, most likely. I wish she didn’t do this, but I don’t know how to stop it.

I wanted to stop drinking, in part, to set a good example and be more present and attentive. Also, I stopped driven by fear that some night I am going to get a call from my daughter to pick her up somewhere. I don’t want to risk being drunk when that happens. I want to be clear and steady.

Not too long ago, my daughter asked me if I had ever been drunk. “Yes,” I said. “I’ve never seen you drunk,” she responded.

While it’s true that I reserved my heaviest drinking for times when my daughter was not in my care, it’s completely untrue that she has never seen me drunk. Many times, I have consumed wine in a low-key but steady fashion throughout an evening. Sometimes she asked me what I was drinking (let’s say it was a gin and tonic or some such) or asked to try it. No, I would tell her. It has alcohol in it. So it’s a little funny to me that she never picked up on differences between buzzed mom and regular mom.

Although she might not have noticed it, I know that my drinking affected her on some level. It had to have. It made me more rushed, more irritable, and less present during key years she needed me. In the initial years after my divorce she was around 10 to 12. I was frazzled from my job and single life in general. Some nights, I was desperate for her and her younger sister to go to bed so I could enjoy a drink and a smoke.

I am sad to say that I was rather selfish in those years. Very preoccupied with work and my romantic life. I didn’t really want to pause to connect with my oldest daughter. I resisted depth. I think I was afraid of opening up an emotional can of worms that I was ill equipped to handle. So I rushed through our time together, taking care of the business of our reconfigured family life in a basic way but also a rather detached way.

Ah, there is so much more to explore here but I will have to do it slowly and carefully. This is difficult. I have a lot of guilt about how thing are turning out with her. It’s hard to separate what I perceive as fall-out from my parental failings from what I also know to be true: She’s a teenager, for crying out loud, and some rebellion and experimentation are inevitably going to be part of the deal.

My biggest fear for my daughter stems from my long-standing observation that she has never seemed to be passionate or excited about anything. She has never seemed motivated. Not by sports, not by school and not by the many other activities she has tried and rather swiftly abandoned. She has been adrift for years, from what I can see, and I am afraid that smoking pot and doing various other immediately gratifying things will fill up all the empty spaces inside her. Once those habits are established I am afraid it will be that much harder for her to find satisfaction and success in activities that take effort, persistence and practice.

I just don’t know what to do for her at this point. I am addressing and rectifying my own issues as best I can right now, but I am afraid that is going to be too little, too late to help her. I’m worried.

thirty redux (# 30)

I made it back to 30 days alcohol free. A while ago, I mentioned that I felt like I was in a sort of holding pattern once I drank again at day 32 and restarted the count. I had to make the arduous climb back up the ladder of days until I could pass 30 again and, hopefully, reach new territory and resume growth.

Well, perhaps that assessment was not entirely true. The second 30 days was different and new growth did occur. I was calmer, overall. Plus this time, I no longer have hanging over my head the question about whether to drink again at the conclusion of a 30-day experiment. Taking that out of the equation has felt good. I am just choosing to live this way, alcohol free, no limits, no questions, day after day after day. This road is simpler and doesn’t have the same tricky fork at the end.

I’ve enjoyed my social life, I have gone to several live music events and thoroughly enjoyed every moment, down to dancing my ass off and waking up bright-eyed the next morning.

I am keeping my life moving forward, tackling personal stuff–my perfectionism, my moodiness, my intermittent feelings of being doomed. That’s my code word for my habit of falling into always-never thinking: “I never get the jobs I want.” “My social anxiety always fucks things up for me.” I am thinking about what kind of a kid I was and what kind of a person I want to be when I truly grow up, which looks to be happening a little behind schedule at age 46.

I am a little bummed that the scale has not budged at all in more than 60 days (with only one night of drinking in the middle), but I do feel lighter of heart and somewhat flatter of stomach. I am doing the best I can. I am fine just as I am. I am doing yoga near daily, running, walking, eating well (except for that pesky uptick in sugar consumption). Oh, on that note, here is a link to a chocolate ice cream recipe that will rock your world and maybe even make you forget wine was ever your drug of choice.

Everything is improving, and nothing is getting worse. That is much more than I could have said 60 days ago. More please.

somewhere on the stress wheel (# 28)

On the downside, I haven’t been feeling very motivated to write. On the upside, I have stayed alcohol free, and drinking/not drinking has been the least of my worries. Socializing with friends, I find, is truly more enjoyable when I am sipping soda water, iced tea or even NA beer. Sometimes I miss drinking wine with my husband, but I love waking up hangover and fuzzy head free.

My stress has arisen because I applied for a new job. I really want this job and am very qualified for it, but it is competitive. I had an interview that went pretty well, but could have been better. I was very nervous, and it showed. I have been trying to let the waves of anxiety come and go as they please, but I am getting so tense and already pregaming how I will spin the situation to myself if I do not get the job.

Somehow, I think I will feel better right now if I have some prepared story I can tell myself and others to explain why I did not get the job. I am freaking myself out with how control freaky that attitude is. Anyway, much of my focus in the last two weeks has been on the interview.

One good aspect of all this: I know that I am doing the best I can right now. I know not drinking is a good choice and sticking with that decision is boosting my confidence. A few months ago, I was feeling pretty down on myself, and I was not sure I could find and land a better job. But I can feel my self-confidence rebuilding. Maybe the interview would have gone better if I had had even more time free from alcohol, but this great opportunity arose and I went for it instead of deferring it. I feel good about that.

I like that I didn’t have to wonder whether it would be ok to have “one drink” the night before my interview. And I didn’t have to quell my nervous energy and anxiety by drinking heavily on the evening after the interview. I am riding this out with a clear head and trying to remind myself that I will be OK no matter what happens.

on flaking (# 18)

As I reflect on the last couple of years and examine why and how I began drinking more and thinking about drinking more, I observe a gradual erosion in my habits and values.

For most of my life I have prided myself on showing up, on time and prepared, no matter what. For example, when I was in my early twenties I went to graduate school in Ireland. The program was attended by a roughly even mix of Irish, British and American students. Plus one Canadian who served as a very earnest and cheerful foil for our sarcastic black-humored bunch. The program was viewed as kind of a blow-off by some, especially the other Americans. A perfect reason to live in Dublin for a year and drink a lot in the name of soaking up literary culture. These people skipped a lot of classes, but could be counted on to appear at the pub every night.

While I too appeared at the pub every night, I never missed a single class and I always did all the reading. I was very proud of myself. One time I slid into in my seat after drinking Jameson for most of the night with an Irish guy of long and complicated acquaintance (a story for another time . . . ). My classmate E whispered, not without admiration, “Jaysus, what have ye done? Ye reek of the distillery.”

Gold star for me. The girl who shows up no matter how much she reeks.

Yes, if I committed to show up somewhere, I would. Without fail. It really annoyed me when other people would bail on plans at the last minute. One time about five years ago, my best friend and I had tickets to go see a play. It was going to be a bit of a process—the place was an hour’s drive away. Several hours before we were going to leave, my friend called and said she thought she was coming down with something and it would be best if she stayed home. I offered to do the driving, but that did not sway her. I was FURIOUS. I am pretty conflict averse, but I was so pissed off and disappointed that I am ashamed to admit that I pretty much hung up on her. No, “Hope you feel better. See you soon.” Nope. I was pissy and childish. Only after I scrambled and landed a replacement theatergoer could I take a deep breath, consider her feelings, and call her back to apologize.

At some point, I talked over my hideous response to this situation with my therapist. I was expressing that it was it was very important to me to show up and that if the shoe had been on the other foot, I would not have bailed on my friend. My therapist got me to continue flipping this around: What if I was truly sick? Would it be right to go? Would my friend appreciate hanging out with me, when I was possibly unpleasant company and possibly contagious?

So, yeah, I saw that my friend made the right choice for her, which was the most important thing in this situation; and maybe, maybe, it actually was the right choice for me, too, even if it felt like a disappointment and inconvenience.

My therapist prodded me to consider that showing up for the sake of showing up is not always a virtue. I was not entirely convinced, but I began to see that sometimes it might be ok to give myself permission not show up for things, just as my friend had given herself permission to stay home and rest instead of going to a play.

But a balance must be struck. Giving oneself permission is slippery, especially when alcohol is involved.

In recent years, I look back and see a sharp trend of me “giving myself permission not to show up” especially for social events, tango events, or workouts, when really I was just preferring to use the time to drink at home or torecover from drinking too much. In the past, if I RSVP’ed, say, to a Facebook event, I would be there. Bells on. More recently, my RSVP meant “I might be there but most likely not.” I could easily justify such behavior in the context of Facebook. People regularly RSVP to things they are merely interested in—there is no real obligation to show up and no intention to attend.  The etiquette of RSVP’ing has relaxed considerably in my lifetime, in many settings. We generally don’t expect a whole from each other anymore.

But deep down, I felt terrible when I would flake on things, no matter how inconsequential the flaking was. Acting like a flake ran counter to my values and my internal sense of myself as a person of my word. In fact, by drinking and flaking, I was becoming as pissed off with myself as I had been with my sick friend a few years ago.

Now that I am not drinking, I am trying to strike the right balance between giving myself permission to do what feels right in the moment (as long as that does not include drinking) and keeping my commitments. I am still finding way back to my favorite activities. I am faithfully showing up for exercise, in multiple forms, every day. It’s harder with social events and tango. Some days, I just don’t feel up to socializing, and then I give myself permission to sit an event out. I am getting better at only agreeing to do things when I am sure I can follow through.

I don’t want to be a flake anymore. It’s an ill-fitting suit for me. But showing up reeking is not the solution either. Going forward, I will be there and be square.

good fences (# 11)

A few posts ago I mentioned having to protect boundaries on several fronts, which was causing some stress. I am happy to report that on one front, at least, the situation resolved. Peacefully and completely. Standing up for my boundaries worked.

While the situation was temporarily stressful, I have saved myself weeks of additional trouble. In a nutshell, I have been involved in a group for about 5 years. The group runs events twice weekly and has very little structure. Events are run by a rotating band of volunteer facilitators.  Basically our group had required only a leader/treasurer responsible for the schedule of one set of weekly events and a coordinator to maintain the annual schedule for the other set of weekly events. That second person was me.

I fell into the role a year ago when the former leader (who had filled both roles) left town. The person who volunteered to be the new leader said she would be leader, as long as someone else handled the scheduling for one day per week. Reluctantly, I agreed to do that, but no more than that. While my assigned task was not burdensome, the group dynamics gradually got overwhelming. The new leader wanted to expand the group and do some other things, which created friction with some of the volunteer facilitators.

At first I tried participating in the process, offering specific perspectives I had due to my professional background. It became clear that the new leader was very impulsive. She tended to solicit ideas from others as if seeking consensus, but then she would make sudden unilateral decisions. I started feeling dread in the pit of my stomach about how the process was going. I knew I had the skills and knowledge to help guide the group forward, but I just plain did not want to do it. I became involved in the group in the first place because it offered a healing practice. I was afraid of losing touch with my original purpose for participating.

I decided that, no matter what, I no longer wanted to play any kind of  leadership or advisory role and I wanted OUT of those responsibilities before I got sucked even deeper in. I told the other facilitators that I was stepping back from organizing the schedule or advising on anything. I knew I had to step back completely by taking myself out of the communication loop entirely, but I didn’t want to burn any bridges. I still wanted to be a member of the group and a facilitator, without coordinating anything.

I was anxious about my decision, worried that things would get hairy, that events would get canceled in the short term, and that people would be disappointed. But I reminded myself that I had previously stepped up to fill a void. I had to trust that if a new void opened up in my absence, others would rise up and fill it. I just had to be firm and clear about my intention not to continue at my previous level of participation and then follow through with corresponding action.

Sure enough, when I stuck to my guns and didn’t participate in further organizational discussions or meetings, other people did step up. Someone took my former role, and some other organizational questions have also been resolved for the time being.

I feel an immense sense of relief and gratitude. Plus, I am happy that I did not play the martyr and force myself to stay involved until I got unhappy, frustrated and pissed off enough to lash out at someone. I did not make the mistake of thinking that I was the ONLY PERSON who could do my task properly. I kept my cool, told my inner control freak to sit down and shut up, got myself out of the equation, and let the other people with a stake in the outcome take ownership.

Right now, it is so important for me to keep my focus on cultivating peace and health. Part of taking care of myself is making sure that my plate of responsibilities is manageable and that my discretionary activities (outside of work and family life) bring me joy, not frustration and dread. I feel great about how this situation played out. Good fences. Good lesson.

family portrait, with bottles (# 9)

During my entire childhood, my parents rarely drank, to my knowledge at least. I remember once tagging along at a holiday party. My mom drove home, which was remarkable to 7-year-old me because she never drove when my dad was in the car. And, yes, my  dad was a passenger on this occasion, but he was otherwise occupied by disgorging the liquid contents of his gut out the window, while the cold night air rushed the stench of it into the backseat where my brother and I pretended to sleep.

The next morning, my dad matter-of-factly hosed off the bespattered car in the driveway before squiring my brother and me to some kids’ class at museum and then to a coffeehouse for chocolate cake. It was a Saturday almost like any other.

I eventually came to understand that my dad’s father had “the Irish curse.” He was gregarious,  clever, jolly, sentimental, but. . . there was a big, big but.

My grandpa was an excellent letter writer and raconteur with a bottomless store of tall tales about his obsessions: bears, trains, Paul Bunyan, Irish history, baseball, and old Chicago. He was at his best with his grandchildren. I loved him.

When I was around 30 I learned that when he was nearing but not yet at retirement, with one child, my aunt, still at home, he got canned from his job as a vice-president for a foundation for showing up drunk, often. He then tried to launch a new career as a realtor, but he lacked the focus to make a go of it.

I learned from my aunt that my grandpa used to lock himself in his bedroom for days on end with nothing but a black mood and a bender’s worth of whiskey, leaving my aunt, who then in high school, and my grandma tiptoeing around saying prayers and pretending everything was as it should be.

Thus it was that my dad (although clearly capable of a binge) made a conscious effort in adulthood to gain the upper hand over his family history, largely avoiding but never entirely renouncing alcohol. Meanwhile, my grandpa sealed his unraveling by falling and hitting his head during a boozy fishing trip, while in his late 60s. He was never the same: It was as if he’d had a stroke. My grandma couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of him. Though a devout Catholic, she legally separated from him, probably for financial reasons, so he could get set up at a nursing home.

My grandpa stayed there, permanently brain-damaged, until he died a few years later. My dad took me to visit him once, I must have been about 12/13; it may have been in 1985. Disconcertingly, he was ranting about the White Sox losing the pennant to the “damned Yankees”. . . which occurred in 1964. I never saw him again.

My grandma kept up her pattern of dutiful visits to the end, but mostly she got on with her life, playing bridge with friends, working part-time at a dress shop, and going to church. She got an apartment and reupholstered her favorite chair in pristine white fabric, simply because she could finally control her environment enough to keep a pretty white chair white. She actually told me that.

Skip ahead two decades, back to my parents.

My mom and I have never had a close relationship. Early on, she tried too hard and was too nosy with me. Her efforts to bond with me, her eldest daughter, were awkward and didn’t go over well. I do credit my mom with giving me a childhood as happy and secure as a shy, perfectionistic bookworm could have. Family dinners every night, freedom to roam around a safe neighborhood all afternoon with a pack of kids, lots of books to read and creative projects to do, encouragement to find and follow my interests, healthy structure/rules, the whole bit. Given my mom’s depressive tendencies, I really don’t know how she summoned the energy for all those years of hardcore stay-at-home parenting, when her natural state is curling up on the couch with a book. I suspect that those years gave her real purpose, and once they were over, she floundered.

She did not drink when I was growing up.

Problems emerged started in 2002 or 2003. By then, my dad had had a quadruple heart bypass. At some point his doctor had suggested that my dad drink an occasional beer to help keep his arteries smooth. Around the same time, my mom, who was very overweight and somewhat depressed her whole adult life, had a gastric bypass surgery. She shed pounds and started to feel more active, cheerful, and social. When my parents were meeting friends for dinner, my dad would nurse a single, modest, medicinal beer, while my mom ate a golf ball’s worth of food and developed a taste for liquid refreshment like Manhattans and martinis.

I lived far away by then, so I had only an intermittent window on what was going on, but I could see my mom was drinking with gusto. My now-ex-husband thought the new habit agreed with her. Typically tense and snappish, my mom became expansive, humorously opinionated, and playful under the influence. Still, there were warning signs. It must have been 2005 or so when my parents came to visit us. That Friday night, we headed to a popular restaurant. The wait was horrendous, and we had a toddler in tow. My mom had several drinks while we waited. Finally, after about an hour, we decided to leave. On the way out the door, my mom took pains to inform the hostess in slurred, but no uncertain terms that “the shervice was very shoddy.” Jeez-us! With that, I was out the restaurant door and halfway across the parking lot propelled by the rocket fuel of pure embarrassment.

My mom’s doom was assured and rapidly attained when she discovered two-buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s, and began marinating in goblets of cheap red wine every night at home, instead of occasionally over-indulging in strong cocktails. Up and down the stairs she’d trudge, from kitchen to upstairs TV room, refilling her glass to the brim each time, sloshing it on the carpet (since replaced, thank god). Eventually, she’d conk out snoring in her chair, shake herself awake, and drag herself up to the third floor to bed. The situation was becoming alarming.

I never said anything to my dad about it—my family members were never ones for frank communication about our failings when we could let unpleasant things fester in silence. Still, I often wondered what my dad thought about this new chapter in his life. My dad spent his entire adult life trying to be the responsible opposite of his alcoholic father, only to watch his wife, who had never been a drinker, become a lousy, stinking wino inside five years.

Once, I caught a part of an “Oprah” episode about people who had bariatric surgery and wound up replacing their food addiction with another addiction—to booze, drugs or sex—because the underlying emotional hole had never been treated or filled. I speculate that this is part of what happened to my mom.

Visiting my parents was a real treat for few years. All my life, already, I had passionately resented my mom for being overweight and not taking more control over her life and health. And now this! I became a silent ball of fury. I could scarcely look at her. I also realized that I really couldn’t leave young daughter in my mom’s care at night, so that meant my now-ex and I were trapped around the house, instead of availing ourselves of grandparental babysitting. For the most part my dad acted oblivious to the situation, but late one night I did overhear one brief, bitter, and pointless (because my mom was so loaded) fight between them.

The worst, for me personally, was when younger daughter was born. My mom came out to stay for three weeks to “help.” She did help some, with cooking,  shopping, etc., but not like she had helped when my older daughter was born, six years earlier, before her drinking started. This time, she was entirely preoccupied with not running out of wine, white-knuckling through each day until the hour when she could reasonably uncork the first bottle. With a new baby in the house, my ex and I weren’t drinking a drop, so it was painfully obvious how much drinking she was doing.

Late one evening, with a wholly unnecessarily nightcap in her wobbly hand, she splattered wine all over the wall next to our stairs on her way up to bed. My 6-year-old pointed out the mess to us in the morning. You see, we had just repainted that wall before the baby arrived. My ex hastily touched up the paint before my mom resurfaced that morning. No one said a word. I was hugely relieved when my mom left.

About eight months after that, my dad called to tell me that my mom was in rehab. It was the first and only time my dad and I had an honest conversation about what had been going on, and how we felt about it.

My mom has been sober for about ten years now. My ex used to joke that it’s too bad my mom had go and piss all over what could have been a beautiful relationship (in moderation) for her twilight years.

Yes, my mom is back to being her tense and snappish self, but there is more lightness of spirit there. I feel respect for her, and I no longer feel viscerally angry in her presence.

My mom did/does AA. I can see that she has been learning to be less reactive.

She’s still very prickly and private, though. Always has been. I suspect she and I will never discuss what happened with her, never mind why it happened and what it all means. I know the steps require my mom to make amends in some way. Maybe she will with me someday; I hope she does, if it would be helpful and necessary for her.